Jazz Pianist and Vibes Player
Don McCaslin was born in Tacoma, Washington, in December of 1926, and moved to
the San Jose area during his first year of life. The city was “one big orchard”
at the time and a good place to grow up.
Don frequently visited Santa Cruz to see his paternal grandparents.
His grandmother sang church music, accompanying herself on the piano.
Don’s father, while not a full time professional musician, was a fine singer and trombonist.
Don took a few piano lessons as a child, but it was
boogie woogie music that really inspired him. He played in the high school
jazz band and then, while attending San Jose State, formed a band patterned after
the “danceable bee bop” of the George Shearing Quintet: piano, guitar, vibraphone,
bass and drums. Don played weekends in San Jose clubs and worked one summer
at the High Hat across from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
In the 1950s he played with the Carl Bruhn big band at the
Coconut Grove. He also spent a summer playing at a jazz hang out in
Capitola, the Coffee Cabaret (in the space now occupied by Mr. Toots). In the 1960s
he played regularly at the Opus de Jazz (now Beach Street Café).
Don McCaslin (center, holding trumpet) in college
Following his graduation from college, Don worked for fifteen years as a high
school English teacher in Fremont. Then in 1970 he quit his teaching job and moved to
Santa Cruz, making music his main pursuit. In 1972 he began playing vibes daily at the
Cooper House sidewalk café, leading the band Warmth in a legendary gig that lasted
until the Cooper House was demolished (following the 1989 earthquake).
Warmth played upbeat, Latin-tinged jazz that became, as one reviewer wrote,
“the heartbeat of downtown Santa Cruz.”
Cooper House, 1970s. Mural of Warmth in background by James McFarlin.
At night, Don continued to play piano in combos
throughout the county—the Riverside Inn, Bayview Hotel, and 2525 Main Street were some
of his regular jobs throughout the 1970s and 80s, and he also performed at Peachwoods
and elsewhere with the Motown Express. For the last seven years, he has played weekly
with the Amazing Jazz Geezers at Severinos. During summer he can be found
leading Warmth every Sunday afternoon on the deck of the Capitola Wharf
Don says one of the highlights of his musical life was seeing
his own son, the saxophonist Donny McCaslin, perform at Lincoln Center with Denilo
At the Capitola Wharf